On 9/11 Berry Berenson-Perkins was heading home to Los Angeles on American Airlines Flight 11. She was among the 92 passengers and crew who died when the plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Berenson-Perkins was an actress, model and photographer. She was also the mother of musician Elvis Perkins.
Elvis didn’t try to make sense of his mother’s death. Instead, he processed her tragedy through writing music. In 2007, he released his debut album Ash Wednesday. The resulting songs were raw and naked and helped him bear the pain of his loss. In the song “While You Were Sleeping,” he recalls a childhood when his mom’s love helped spawn his burgeoning artistic talents:
While you were sleeping your babies grew
The stars shined and the shadows moved.
You were dreaming you ignored the sun
You grew your power garden for your little ones.
As the song progresses, darkness foreshadows his mother’s tragic path.
Were you falling were you flying were you calling out
or were you dying.
As the song ends, Perkins opts to remember his mom while she was still alive.
Thank god you’re up now, let’s stay this way
Else there’ll be no mornings and no more days
Elvis said Ash Wednesday refers to “being left on Wednesday with nothing but ash,” because his mother died on a Tuesday. September 12 was the same day his father died nine years earlier. Elvis’ father was actor Anthony Perkins, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992. Elvis was 16 at the time. He’d been playing guitar for five years and was envisioning a career in music. “Dad’s death was major, but I was young and more supple or something. Maybe, had he not passed away, I’d have had a record out at 20. Though that’s speculation.”
Elvis rarely speaks of his Hollywood upbringing. He says his father did a good a good job of keeping work and home separate. It was his mother’s choice to name him after Elvis Presley. In school, kids made fun of his name. They also called him “Norman Bates’ son.” Elvis grew wary of people. When he was 10, he took piano lessons from a “scary, old, gnarled” instructor. He also played saxophone before gravitating to guitar. His guitar teacher was Prescott Niles, one-time bass player for The Knack.
Elvis attended college at Brown University and began writing folk-rock music in a style reminiscent of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen. He played open-mic nights in small coffeehouses. “I spent my early-20s tooling around, not sure how to approach music.” In early-2001, he moved to Los Angeles to jump start his career. He wrote songs about his mom whom he called his biggest fan. In the song “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky,” he included a line inspired by a phone conversation with his mom: “Do you know where we go when we die?”
After 9/11, Elvis’ musical journey was derailed. “Whatever I was trying to do in music and life was greatly altered. It changed the way I thought about being a popular musician, because what does that matter, when nothing means anything?” He moved to the east coast and refined the songs that would become Ash Wednesday. The first six songs were written before his mother’s death. The remaining four were written after 9/11. The music has an undercurrent of heartache and sadness as evidenced in the song “Mayday!”
Your cameras caught me crying as I left your gates,
Your maintenance men, they caught our last embrace.
In the album’s title track “Ash Wednesday,” Elvis expresses his despair:
No one will survive
Ash Wednesday alive
No soldier no lover
No father no mother
Not a lonely child
In the up and in the bedroom
A black and white of the bride and the groom
Will bring me to my knees
With the colorized bad dream.
Despite the pervasive melancholy, the songs have a seed of hope. A standup bass and diverse brass instrumentation provide an optimistic counterpoint. The closing song “Good Friday” offers a seed of redemption:
Come lay here beside me
And I’ll fear no death
I’ll give you my body
And I’ll breathe your breath.
No-one will harm you
Inside this song
We will be safe here
As the light is long
That makes way for Good Friday.
Elvis’ promotional tour was low-key and limited. He and his three-piece tour band (dubbed Elvis Perkins in Dearland) played small clubs, appeared on Austin City Limits and public radio outlets like Seattle’s KEXP. In Los Angeles, they played at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. His tragic backstory and Hollywood royalty status attracted small crowds and earned him pre-debut fame.
Album reviews were good, not great. The Boston Globe compared him to Bob Dylan and Hunky Dory-era David Bowie. Stylus Magazine wrote, “few albums made in recent memory sound this harrowing or this painful, yet even fewer have such a true sense of catharsis.” The Village Voice wrote that “Perkins finds empathy through his whimsy-fueled, sad-bastard songs of experience.”
In 2009, he released his second album Elvis Perkins in Dearland. The music touches on familiar territory of dreams, death and the afterlife but the energy’s more upbeat and exultant. “Each member plays a horn of some sort or the other. I think this contributes to the sort of parade-type celebratory spirit, which is one of the things that differentiates this album from the last.”
Track one “Shampoo” is a dynamic, foot-stomping ballad that abandons Elvis’ folk past for a more rock/R&B feeling. “Hey” is an energetic dance number with a pounding bass drum and catchy guitar riff. “Hours Last Stand” feels like a modern version of a Robert Johnson blues number. The album’s most memorable song is “Doomsday.”
Not in all of my wildest dreams
It never once did seem
That doomsday would fall anywhere near a Tuesday
But flight across the sky
See it fade before my eyes
There isn’t any sense to a good by and by
For I don’t plan to die
Nor should you plan to die.
I don’t let Doomsday bother me
Do you let it bother you?
Elvis makes it clear that he’s doing his best to surmount personal tragedy. His mother is always with him. In a 2021 interview with CBS, he was asked if he’d been to the 9/11 Memorial. He said he’d gone but “it’s not for me. I don’t feel like she’s there. And when I’m there I don’t really feel like I’m there.” He added that his mother’s spirit is ever present in his music. He chooses to focus on “the celebration of her existence.”